Teaching and Assessing Skills

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So we’ve looked at what 21st Century Skills are, why they are important, and how skills relate to content. The next question is, How do you teach these skills (and by implication, assess them)?

As I said in my last post, the way to teach these skills is to get explicit:

  1. name the skill (thanks Angela Maiers)
  2. facilitate the learning of the skill (through guided doing)
  3. assess the skill
    Iteratively to facilitate the learning:
    -Identify and capitalize on strengths
    -Identify and correct or compensate for weaknesses
    (Thanks Robert Sternberg)

So let’s get concrete with an example:

Just the other day I was pulled into a mask making project by my twin boys, who are in kindergarten. At first I was a little distracted by something I was trying to work on, but seeing that was futile,  I quickly gave up on that and got involved. Now paying attention, I quickly realized that I was watching my boys learn to problem solve.

They had identified their problem: “I want to make a mask”

They clearly had the needed background content (i.e. the concept of what a mask is and how it works)

Motivation was a given: They wanted to use the masks to scare their sister

Here is what really struck me: I realized that simply by engaging in this activity, the boys were learning to problem solve, in an implicit fashion. The most stark problem they encountered, over and over, was cutting before measuring: they kept ending up with the eyes too far apart and with paper strips for straps that were too long or short. Now, given enough time on task, they would clearly realize that measuring before you cut will not only save you time, but make sure that your mask met with the goals you had for it. They would also get better at problem solving in general.

However, I also realized this was a great opportunity to facilitate not only their learning of that particular problem solving skill, but to help them generalize the problem solving skills they were learning to be applied to future problems. By pointing out the problem they kept encountering, and offering them a way to alleviate their frustration (“if you measure the distance between your eyes first and then cut, the eyes will be in the right spot”), they quickly applied the lesson to their mask making. By generalizing the concept, (“measure twice, cut once”), they were offered a mental construct for how the concept can be applied in a general fashion to other problems.

Now of course, the concept of “measure twice, cut once” can be generalized even further into the universal problem solving methodology of getting very clear on a desired outcome and the steps and sub-problems between here and there. If I had designed the mask project ahead of time as an instructional piece, I would have started the process by walking the boys through (by means of casual conversation), this concept flow:

  1. define the problem
  2. identify what is needed to solve it (materials needed, identify constraints, etc.)
  3. how to tell if the product met your goals / assumptions

(This problem solving flow being developmentally appropriate for their age. Something more advanced might look like the methodology outlined by Woods et al (1997), for teaching problem solving in engineering classes – see bottom of this post for full reference. Also see Defining, teaching, and assessing problem solving skills for further discussion.)

The conversation might go like this:

Q: “What are you trying to do?”
A: “Make a mask”

Q: “If you build it just right, what will it be like and what will it do?
A: “It will scare our sister
Q: “Anything else you need the mask to do?”
A: [guide them toward] “it needs to fit on our heads, we need to be able to see out of it, and it needs to be scary”

Q: “What do we need to be able to build it?”
A: [list supplies]

Q: “What will we need to do to know that we built it right?”
A: [guide them toward] “put it on, see if it fits and that we can see out of it, and them see if it scares our sister”

This would be the generalized version of “measure twice, cut once”, that can be universally generalized to solving problems of all sorts. After the problem solving attempt, I would (and did) facilitate some self-reflection on their process. They had a goal to make a mask, but how did they know if they were successful or not (did it fit, were the eyes in the right place, did it scare their sister?). I also highlighted the specific problem they encountered of cutting before measuring, and reinforced how smart they were to have recognized that and how they could use that new idea to solve lots of problems in the future.

Now onto assessment. If this had been a classroom assignment, how would we assess it in a way that reinforced their learning of the desired skills? Clearly there are innumerable things we could assess including developmentally appropriate behavioral and other skills that would be worked on and addressed through the project (e.g. sharing tools, working well together, cleaning up afterward, etc.), but providing too much feedback on too many things will defeat the purpose by overloading the mind and ensuring that very little gets deeply encoded. So, it is important to pick one or two skills in addition to the content that will receive specific assessment / feedback. In most cases, it will be the skill that is most clearly named, and for which the lesson was specifically structured to present the learning opportunity. This could be a beginning outline for our official grading rubric for the assignment.

  • Behavior
  • Responsibility (clean up?)
  • Quality of work
  • Problem Solving Skills
  • Creativity

We could give general feedback in each of these areas for a total grade, but then also provide an explicit recap of the problems encountered, explicit concepts learned, and then use that as a reference the next time they are trying to solve a problem to see if they are hitting the same general road blocks, etc.

So, greatly reinforced by this learning event were the ideas that:

  1. Simply by providing our students with an opportunity to try to solve problems, we are helping them learn to problem-solve.
  2. As an advanced learner, I can help them learn better (faster, more deeply, creating generalized concept structures from specific lessons) by:
    1. Structuring the problems to present specific obstacles and opportunities
    2. Help them generalize what they learn
    3. Help them develop a means and a habit of self reflection on their learning process

REFERENCES

Woods D.R., Hrymak, A.N., Marshall, R.R., Wood, P.E.,
Crowe, C.M., Hoffman, T.W., Wright, J.D., Taylor, P.A.,
Woodhouse, K.A., Bouchard, C.G.K., Developing problem
solving skills: The McMaster problem solving program.
ASEE J of Engng Educ., 86, 2, 75-91 (1997).

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